Americans are increasingly likely to live in a county where presidential elections are decided by a landslide of 20 points or more. But the trend is slightly different in so-called rural recreation counties – places where recreational activities drive a big part of the local economy.
That makes these recreation counties a bit of an outlier in rural (or nonmetropolitan) areas.
Political polarization is hard to measure. Political scientists use a variety of techniques to determine the severity or the ideological distance between political parties. No single measure captures the full complexity of the phenomenon, but county level presidential election results show us the extent to which national politics became more sorted geographically.
The percentage of rural counties with landslide presidential elections has been on the rise, according to a Daily Yonder analysis. Like “polarization,” people who study elections don’t have a consensus on the definition of “landslide.” But for this analysis, landslide counties are ones where a party won by more than 20 percentage points.
To determine where recreational activities make up a big part of the local economy, we used the USDA Economic Research Service's system of county economic types. Recreation counties have higher numbers of seasonal homes and higher levels of employment and earnings in dining, accommodations, entertainment, and recreation professions.
Rural recreation counties have been less likely to have landslide elections. The difference is slight, but measurable for the last 16 years. The percentage of recreation counties that experienced a landslide declined slightly in 2020 to 67%, down from 70% in the 2016 election. In other words, recreation counties tend to have a more equal share of both Democratic and Republican voters than other rural counties, resulting in more competitive elections.
Republican counties have higher average percentages of landslide elections in both recreation and non-recreation counties from 2004 - 2020. But there were more Democratic landslides in recreation counties than other economic types.
In the 2016 election, all counties exhibited landslide peaks. But only 70% of recreation counties were landslides, while over 80% of non-recreation rural counties were landslides. The percent of landslides in non-recreation counties remained relatively steady in the 2020 election, and the percent of landslides in recreation counties declined slightly.
In the 2020 presidential election, 32 counties in non-recreation counties witnessed extreme landslides or elections with more than an 80-point margin. They were all Republican counties, and 40% of them were in Texas.
Roberts County, Texas, had the highest margin of all nonmetro counties. Ninety-six percent of voters supported Trump in Roberts County in 2020, followed by King and Borden counties, Texas, where 95% of the voters supported Trump.
No rural recreation counties had extreme landslides in the 2020 presidential election.
Recreation Counties Have Higher Voter Turnout
Recreation counties have a voting turnout nine percentage points higher than non-recreation counties. While 70% of the adult population in rural recreation counties voted, only 61% of the adult population voted in other rural counties in 2020.
Ideal voting turnout estimates require numbers on the prisoner population and the residents who are not US citizens. But this data is insufficient at the county level. In the absence of ideal data, I measure turnout as the share of the voting age population that actually voted.
Recreation counties make up only 11% of the nation's nonmetropolitan counties. Voters in these counties accounted for 16% of the total rural turnout. But in close elections, even small constituencies can make a big difference.
Higher turnout in recreation counties is related to higher percentages of senior citizens, who tend to vote more than other age groups. While 39% of the adult population in rural recreation counties are over 60 years old, 33% of the adult population in other rural counties are over 60.
Recreation Counties Vote More Democratic
Recreation counties had more Democratic votes than other rural counties in presidential elections since 2004. On average, rural recreation counties increased their percentage of votes for the Democratic presidential candidate by 10.4% from 2016 to 2020. Other rural counties showed a 4.5% increase in Democratic votes between 2016 and 2020.
Democratic votes increased across all economic types when Barack Obama was elected for his first term in 2008. On average, 41% of rural recreation residents voted for Obama in 2008, while other rural economic types averaged 33%.
Compared to other rural counties, recreation counties have more college-educated residents and residents who are not white, both of which tend to increase the percentage of Democratic votes.
Seventeen percent of residents over 25 years old in rural recreation counties have at least a bachelor’s degree, while only 12.5% of residents the same age in other rural counties have a bachelor’s degree. Approximately 25% of the rural recreation population is not white, while 18% of residents in other rural counties are not white.
A 2021 Pew Research study found that one in 10 young adults moved because of Covid-19, citing financial constraints as the most common reason. Given the increasing opportunities for remote work, urbanites facing financial pressures have unprecedented opportunities to relocate. Journalist Mark Johanson calls this population “amenity migrants.” He suggests many of the migrants are moving to recreation areas where they can work remotely with a slower pace of life and lower cost of living.
Since reports show that Republicans are less likely to favor remote working than Democrats, recreation counties may witness an increase in democratic-voting amenity migrants in the coming years.
But recreation counties are already experiencing more growth than other rural counties. The population of recreation counties increased by 3.4% over the last decade, while other economic types exhibited hardly any change.
Two Western Recreation Counties See Big Changes
Approximately 1,000 individuals moved from California to Flathead last year, according to IRS reports. But the population was outgrowing most Montana counties even before the pandemic.
From 2010 to 2020, the Flathead population increased by 14.7% - that’s 12% higher than the national rural average. The percentage of votes for the Democratic presidential candidate also climbed. In 2016, Hillary Clinton received 28.5% of the Flathead vote, and Joe Biden received 33.8% of the vote in 2020. In the congressional elections, the percentage of votes for the Democratic candidate increased from 31.6% in 2016 to 35.6% in 2020.
Something similar happened in Wasatch County, Utah. Last year, 171 people moved from Los Angeles and Orange Counties, California, to Wasatch County, a rural recreation county of approximately 35,000 in the 2020 Census. Wasatch witnessed a 47% population growth in the last decade with a corresponding increase in percentage of votes for the democratic presidential candidate from 2016 to 2020. From 2016 to 2020, the percentage of votes for a Democratic candidate increased from 25.2% of all votes to 34.5%, more than twice as high of a percent change than other rural counties. The congressional votes in Wasatch County stayed virtually the same between 2016 and 2020.
We can’t say whether amenity migrants will significantly affect voting trends, but the data suggest recreation counties could continue to swing Democratic in the coming elections, at least in some Western states.
(1) We define rural as counties that are not within a Metropolitan Statistical Area, according to the Office of Management and Budget (2013) and metropolitan counties where a majority of the population lives in rural settings, according to the 2010 U.S. Census.
(2) Recreation-dependent counties are defined using a weighted index that considers three components - jobs, earnings in entertainment, recreation, accommodations, food/drink, and real estate, and the percentage of housing set aside exclusively for seasonal use. Recreation counties are counties with a weighted index one standard deviation or more above the mean.